This Is Christianity?

A few weeks ago, I stood looking bigotry in the eye and wondering how someone comes to think and behave that way. What makes it possible for someone who has feelings and some kind of sense of self-worth to treat others as though they are scum who should be eliminated from the earth?

The place was the Nauvoo Pageant, sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) in Nauvoo, Illinois, a town from which the Latter-day Saints were once driven by mobs. The scene was the entrance to the pageant. Protesters and hecklers stood on the public street, just off of Church property, taunting, insulting, and confronting people arriving to see the historical pageant.

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I’m grateful I can rely on Jesus Christ to judge my Christianity, and not on someone who is willing to consign me to hell without knowing my heart.

One man used a megaphone to shout taunts such as: “All Mormons are going to HELL!” as well as slurs like “Mormon ___________!” or “Mormon _____________!” (insert a name here for a man or woman who is gay). It was evident from his demeanor that he was using those slurs in the belief they would offend people.

Not far away were a couple of other people handing out literature designed to look like it was connected with the pageant. In truth, it was a collection of criticisms, half-truths, and distortions of LDS doctrine. I have read their literature before and investigated the claims. All of those claims have either been disproved long ago, or cannot be either proved or disproved because they are misrepresentations. The people handing out this material want it understood that they are separate from the people with the megaphone; they will tell you they are simply there in the service of Jesus. I would like to ask how they feel they are serving Jesus by handing out material that they know, or should know, is misleading.

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. There is certainly room for good people to disagree on questions such as how grace is applied in our lives, what awaits us after this life, and how we should receive and respond to inspiration from the Holy Ghost. I respect anyone’s right to have a different view. It is a basic tenet of our faith that all men and women have the God-given right to exercise their own agency in religious beliefs and practices. Among the 13 Articles of Faith that define basic LDS beliefs is this one, number 11: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men [and women] the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” This idea is embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. And yet some seem to feel that this freedom should be applied only to certain selected religions.

I am always grateful to be among believers in God, and I have no difficulty working amicably with anyone, whether or not they believe as I do. I respect their right to worship, or not, as they see fit. I believe we are in truth all brothers and sisters as sons and daughters of God, and we owe each other respect on that basis. And if that is not enough, we ought to try to live in peace together as residents of this planet.

But I have difficulty understanding those antagonistic protesters. Do they go home at night telling themselves, “I served Jesus today by screaming insults at people and trying to destroy their faith”?

The only way I can explain their behavior in my own mind is to realize that those people are haters, and members of my church happen to be their focus. If there were no Mormons, they would focus their hate on Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, foreign immigrants, Democrats or Republicans, or some other handy group. They simply need someone to hate—someone on whom they can focus their anger—because deep inside they are not right with God, and not even right with themselves.

Their actions cannot be, either rationally or spiritually, the actions of people who follow a loving God. This cannot be Christianity—not as taught by Him who said, “Love one another” (John 15:17).

I feel sorry for those protesters, and I’m sure this statement would anger them. As we watched them out in the street one evening, the sheer theatricality of the man with the megaphone made me laugh. He saw me, and focused his wrath on me: “You laugh now, but you’ll burn in HELL!”

What a sad, pitiful way to spend one’s limited time in this life—trying to destroy someone else’s faith instead of trying to demonstrate what it means to be a follower of God.

 

How Clever the Corn: Belief and Rationality

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Corn in July, before it grew “as high as an elephant’s eye.”

Here in western Illinois, the corn seemed to zoom skyward early in the summer. I thought we could almost measure the growth by the hour. Then the growth of the stalks slowed down and ears began to develop. And now we are enjoying this year’s delicious corn on the cob.

How clever the corn is in this established pattern of growth! After its spurt of growth, the Corn ear Jul17_01641Bwhole purpose of the plant seems to change as it develops ears for harvesting. It is as though some Great Horticulturist had made the plants to function this way.

And yet some people will insist this could not be so. They may insist that evolution is the only possible explanation.

Somehow that seems superstitious and ignorant. What is rational or intelligent or “scientific” about ruling out God as one of the possible explanations for creation? Is it because some people cannot see evidence that matches their limited mortal understanding? Absence of evidence is still proof of nothing. Where is any reliable, measurable, quantifiable evidence proving that God could not have been involved?

Attempts to explain creation without God seem superstitious in that they rely on some unknown chance or force that somehow accidentally created life. Really? Some mysterious, unexplainable inner drive is an acceptable possibility, but God is not?

Some might ask if I believe in “intelligent design.” I couldn’t answer because I do not know what the term implies in the mind of those who ask the question.

But I believe that this earth and its environment were created by God over six time periods according to an organized plan. I do not know what techniques He used or how long each time period was. I do not believe that they were six 24-hour “days” as we measure by our clocks, but six “days” as we speak of “our day” or “ancient days”—extended, indefinite time periods.

I believe He followed patterns that His greater intelligence told Him would work. Perhaps he used similar techniques or systems in moving from creation to creation, from organism to organism. Perhaps if a muscular or cellular system or organ worked in one animal or plant, He would employ that system again in another one. What rational being would not do this?

The knowledge I lack on the topic of creation is vast. What concerns me about some of the people who develop alternative explanations for creation is that they seem unwilling to acknowledge their own intellectual limits. They may have many years of education and experience in particular scientific fields, and yet their knowledge is minuscule compared to what they do not know. Some are nevertheless willing to speculate, so long as the discussion does not acknowledge that God could be the answer.

I believe in a God who wants us to learn all we can about this mortal life and our existence on this planet, a God who delights in helping us. If He were to reveal to us all the details of how He created everything, we could not possibly comprehend His works. But I believe He is pleased when we seek knowledge and that He will help us learn more. (After all, His Son taught, “Seek, and ye shall find.”)

God is under no obligation, however, to prove anything to us on our terms. If we want to know more, we need to seek on His terms, and this involves faith.

Who would begin a scientific experiment without some degree of faith that there will be answers—that time and experience will reward us with knowledge? But a true scientist has the wisdom to recognize that the answer may not be the one we want or expect. The hypothesis we began with may be wrong, and the answer may be something we did not believe in the beginning. A true scientist studies natural phenomena or performs an experiment seeking the truth, not seeking a way to make carefully selected facts support a prior conclusion.

This life is for schooling. We are sent here to learn, and to grow through our experiences. We are here to prepare for even greater learning hereafter.

In some future “day,” I hope to enroll in Celestial Biology or Celestial Geology 101 and learn how it was all done. But for the time being, I’m trying to master the lessons in human relationships that my Creator would have me learn here.

 

Fathers’ Day, Mom, and a Pair of Binoculars

Today is Father’s Day and I’m thinking of Mother. And this chain of thought began with a pair of binoculars.

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My widowed mother with her young son, circa 1948.

My father was taken by an accident when I was only 21 months old, so I grew up with a single mother. There were definitely times as I boy when I wished I could have a dad as my friends did. All I know of him suggests that my father would have been a great dad. But I learned—and I see this even more clearly now—that a loving Heavenly Father made up the lack for me. He strengthened my mother so she could do what two parents might normally do. He gave me two wise, loving grandfathers who were great examples of what it meant to be an honorable man. He gave me some fine uncles and others who did things for me that my father might have done if he had been there. My grandparents lived until I was in my thirties and forties, and I was privileged to learn, learn, learn from all of them. I still live by their lessons.

My mother made her way in a man’s world, doing it nobly and well. There were things she could not teach me about fathering and manhood that I have had to learn from experience. (And it was learned in part at my children’s expense. To the five of you: I’m sorry.) But from Mom I learned about moral, productive adulthood. What more could I have asked her to teach?

So what does a pair of binoculars have to do with this?

When I was 10, one of Mom’s friends let me borrow his binoculars for a short time. I quickly decided that I wanted a pair of my own. There is something about looking at the world up close that has always fascinated me. So that year I just had to have a pair of binoculars for Christmas, and I was not disappointed. On Christmas morning, there they were—a nice, new pair of 7×35 binoculars in their own leather case! I enjoyed using them wherever we traveled, or just out in the backyard studying the mountains east of town.

Later I found out from Mom that they had cost her $50. I had no way at the time to appreciate what that meant. But for perspective, she had left a well-paying job a couple of years earlier to go back to college and get a degree in something she could enjoy doing for the rest of her life. That Christmas in the mid-1950s, we were living in my grandparents’ basement apartment, paying them $20 a month rent and getting by on a little income from a small store my mother owned with her parents. The cost of those binoculars was a significant sacrifice for her.

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On a family vacation at 15.

My father was a wonderful man, by all accounts, and I hope to have the privilege of knowing him in some far-away future beyond this life. But in this life, my mother was forced to be the provider and guide and support—everything a parent needed to be. And often I asked way to much of her. She gave—without my really realizing all the sacrifices she made.

I still have that pair of binoculars, scarred by long use. They’re tucked away in a closet, inside what remains of their leather case. Today I have two or three newer pairs, for bird watching, travel, scenery. This morning I looked at the small pair I keep on the kitchen table for watching the cardinals, orioles, jays, and woodpeckers out back, and I thought of Mom. When I think of that older pair of binoculars, it is not without some guilt. I remember how much she gave and how much I asked when I was growing up. Now I wish I had been less greedy and less needy. But can we ever really know the sacrifices of parents until we are in that role ourselves?

Mom is with Dad now. She lived as a widow for 64 years. I hope they are enjoying the opportunity finally to work as a team. And I hope that some years hence I may meet them together and thank each of them for all they provided me.

But for now—thanks, Mom, for being Dad when you had to be.

 

 

 

“One Nation under God”

COB1 2My08The two words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance when I was a boy in elementary school. My very patriotic mother made sure I had an opportunity to know that pledge before I started school, and I can still remember learning to recite the pledge with those new words in the third or fourth grade.

No one objected at the time. Everyone seemed to agree that the addition was a good idea.

It’s hard to imagine that such a change would be accepted now. I am surprised that in this era of secularism in government, the Pledge of Allegiance has not faced serious legal challenges.

It seems to me that we commonly say it incorrectly: “. . . one nation . . . under God . . . indivisible . . . .” When we separate nation and under God and indivisible, we are missing the point of those added words. If we are not a nation under God, then we will not be a nation indivisible. Only by following the moral guidance of a loving Heavenly Father can we be secure as a country and people.

We mortals each tend to look out for our own good. But this nation rises to greatness when we as individuals band together to work toward a common cause. The strength of the United States has come from individual willingness to bind ourselves to principles of morality and integrity. Greatness has come from a recognition that we are all children of the same Eternal Father, no matter what faith we espouse or what meetinghouse we attend.

We may not agree in all our thoughts, but if we want to remain free, we must be one in protecting the right to worship according to our own conscience. Each of us may enjoy this God-given right so long as we do not infringe on another’s right to pursue life in liberty. I believe that the United States was set up by divine providence to be a land where this freedom would exist.

In the Old Testament (Ezekiel 34:23), God said He would set one shepherd over His people. In the New Testament (John 10:16), Jesus Christ taught that there should be “one fold, and one shepherd.” In a modern volume of scripture, He taught: “. . . be one; and if ye are not one, ye are not mine” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:27).

Nvoo My17_02935We become better as a nation by becoming better individuals. If we divide ourselves from God and His teachings by ignoring Him, we will not be strong enough to stand alone.

Religions in general seem to agree that we ought to treat each other as children of the God who created us. What I know of Islam suggests that in its true form it protects the rights of all believers in God our Father. I cannot believe in a god who would teach his children to hate and slaughter each other to honor him. That is the kind of teaching we would expect from the enemy of God. Anyone who tries to deprive others of liberty or life in the name of Allah or Jesus Christ or Jehovah is hijacking religion to serve his own prejudices and sadistic, criminal lust for power. Mixing hate and slaughter with religion is taking the name of God in vain.

Three times now I have left this post for further review as I tried to refine and focus its central message, which is this: If we want to maintain our freedom, we must honor and obey the God who gave us law to govern us. I pray that our sacred right to worship Him according to conscience may continue to be respected. I fear it could be eroded away because of those who are unable to acknowledge a power higher than themselves.

If that right to worship is ever lost, may God have mercy on those of us in this country who believe. We will have no effective defense, moral or physical, but to pray for safety and hope for the best.

 

 

 

Let Me Sing of Beauty

Nvoo SGK home20170513_009Sometimes I just have to give praise to God for the glories of this earth He created.

We have been very busy for the past several weeks in our service assignment for our church, but we have still had time to enjoy the beautiful things and creatures on Heavenly Father’s good, green earth.

The woods north and south of the place we live “are lovely, dark and deep.” (Homage to Robert Frost here.) We have seen deer watch us curiously as we are out walking, and Squirrel Nvoo 9My17_00438other creatures—including lots of lively squirrels—scampering nearby. The neighbor’s bird feeder draws cardinals, blue jays, redheaded woodpeckers, and other beautiful birds we can see from our kitchen window.

To the east, toward sunrise, there are houses with beautiful expanses of green lawn and fields with healthy crops coming up. One mile to the west, our street ends at the Mississippi River. Before the river, there are the restored homes and sites of historic Nauvoo, surrounded by bright flowers (including some that we helped plant last week).  More often than not, the evening brings a spectacular sunset across the Mississippi.

The works of man here are interesting, but the works of God are glorious. They bring these thoughts.

O let me sing of beauty

In creation’s wide expanse,

For thou art surely master

Of more than form and function,

Adding artistry in the shaping

Of the countless living things

That fill our ordered sphere.

How shall we see a leaf

And fail to recognize

Thy careful hand as artist

In its green pulse of growth?

Cardinal Nvoo My17_DSC00470How shall we see a cardinal

And not ask if brilliant red

Was somehow essential

To its graceful flight?

How can we see the river’s

Wide and surging power

And not see in its flow

The surging fount of life?

We live midst ordered systems,

Each driven by its laws,

Yet something more than order

Dresses and shapes creation,

Something more than function

Adds hue and pleasing form.

The delights of earth around us

Are products of Thy hand.

O let me sing of beauty

That is a gift from Thee.

  Thank the Lord for Small Blessings

The steering of the car began to feel a bit mushy, and I noticed that the low tire pressure indicator was lit up on the dashboard. Then a woman driving past us on the freeway mouthed, “You have a flat tire.”I pulled off on the shoulder and set the brake. As I got out to check the tires, a strange thing happened. The thought crossed my mind clearly: “There will be hidden blessings in this.”

The right rear tire was down, and had been chewed up a bit by the rim before I was able to stop. How could there be a blessing in that?

It was the first time I had needed to change a tire on our minivan. My wife dug out the owner’s manual and I verified that I would indeed have to move the part of the load that was in the center of the vehicle, pull up the carpet, and remove the wooden covering over the spare tire well in order to dig out the jack and runty looking donut tire.

After wading through a muddy ditch to find a big rock to wedge under the front tire, I went to work. I had been at it for about 15 minutes when a car stopped behind us on the shoulder and a young man got out. He asked if he could help. Now, I learned to change flat tires probably before his parents were born. I had already done the muscle-straining labor of removing the lug nuts and was in the process of jacking up the car. I told him I could handle it just fine. But he had me when he smiled and said his mother had taught him always to help where he could, and he wouldn’t want to disappoint her. So I let him go to it. Maybe the Lord had told him he needed to serve someone that day, I thought

The tires were nearly new—less than 2,000 miles on them–and they came with a warranty from a national chain. While we were working on the tire, my wife used her phone to look up the nearest store for that tire company. It was less than a mile away, down at the end of the freeway off-ramp just ahead of us.

When he finished with the tire, the young man followed us down to the tire store to be sure we got there safely. We thanked the Lord for him in our hearts as he drove away. About an hour later, after eating our sack lunch in the waiting area, we were on our way with a new tire.

A skeptic might say, “Where was the blessing? You lost a tire and faced some danger and inconvenience on the side of the road. And that tire could have failed anywhere.”

Exactly. If it was going to fail, that could have happened on Interstate 80 in the barren middle of Wyoming during the cross-country trip we have to make next week. But it didn’t.

You can believe what you want to believe, but I’ll believe what the Lord told me by the voice of His Spirit when I got out of the car: there were hidden blessings in the experience.

And I wonder how many times, when things happen that seem discouraging or troublesome, do I fail to see that the Lord has provided blessings in disguise?

Tolerating Faith: Lessons from Nauvoo

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Sunset across the Mississippi, seen from Nauvoo

Nauvoo, Illinois, is a small place on an out-of-the-way bend in the Mississippi River. It rates a footnote in American history because for about four years in the mid-1800s it seemed a safe haven for persecuted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—Mormons.

But suddenly Nauvoo is relevant again because we in America still have not learned lessons that should have been learned there in the 1840s.

Mormons had been driven from Missouri under threat of extermination, in the dead of the winter of 1838-39 with only the clothes on their backs. The mob war against them had been tacitly approved in an extermination order issued by the state’s governor. There had been murders, robberies, rapes, and beatings, including the massacre at Haun’s Mill. No one was spared—not even children. Their leader had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges for which there was no evidence.

Fleeing eastward, they found haven, and sympathetic helpers, in Illinois. They built up the new city of Nauvoo, and members began to gather there. But by 1844 their relationship with neighbors had gone sour again. The reasons were social and political as well as religious. Politicians began to fear the power of Mormons voting as a bloc. Their Christian religious beliefs were unorthodox. Among other things, some of them practiced polygamy, believing they were following a command of God given through a prophet. Much of the information that was circulated about them was false—lies concocted by people who were

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A memorial to Joseph and Hyrum Smith, martyrs for their faith, in front of the Nauvoo LDS Temple.

ignorant of their doctrine but wanted to turn public opinion against them. Their leader, Joseph Smith, was assassinated by a mob.

I have been reading a lot about Nauvoo lately because my wife and I will be spending some time there as missionaries. In a country that proclaims religious freedom, there is plenty of room for differing views on doctrine. Many Christians find reason not to accept LDS doctrine, and I would defend their right to do so. But facts from history leave little room to doubt that what happened to the Mormons of Nauvoo was unjust and criminal.

The federal government failed to protect them and their rights. State governments failed to protect them. They were driven out of the then-United States to the Great Salt Lake Valley. When that territory was annexed by the United States a short time later, the persecution over their beliefs continued until—again by the command of a prophet who received a revelation from God—they abandoned the practice of polygamy. Before that happened, enemies tried to destroy the Church with laws targeting their beliefs (beliefs that seem relatively tame now, in an era when courts are dealing with issues of same-sex marriage and gender by choice).

But all that persecution is past now, right?

Or does some of this sound familiar in light of current events?

Today, we still have religious minorities under attack because their beliefs are different. Demagoguery and unsubstantiated, bigoted rhetoric has given the hate-mongers in our society license to go after people they fear or dislike.

Christians, including Mormons, who hold to the belief that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman are under attack by those who see themselves as more enlightened and more sensitive to acceptable social norms. Many people cite religious freedom as they reject traditional beliefs about morality, yet they are willing to violate the freedom of others by trying to force them to accept ideas repugnant to their consciences.

People who hate don’t seem to need a reason to attack Judaism, and haters attack Muslims based on half-truths or falsehoods. What little I know of Islam suggests it is a religion of peace whose name has been hijacked by remorseless and sadistic criminals. In any case, barring or booting people from the United States based on the fact that they come from a predominantly Muslim country does not live up to the ideal of religious freedom we hold up for the world. Never mind that Christians are not given tolerant treatment or religious freedom in Muslim countries; this country espouses a higher standard. Let’s live up to it.

An attack on the religious freedom of any minority is an attack on the religious freedom of all of us. We do not have to agree on doctrine to agree that we each deserve the right to worship according to our own faith. Whether we call him God or Heavenly Father, Yahweh or Allah, our obligation of faith and obedience is to Him, and no one should interfere with that so long as our worship does not hurt anyone else.

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The inscription below the tower on the Nauvoo Temple proclaims “Holiness to the Lord.”

One basic Mormon tenet is this: “We claim the privilege of worshipping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may” (Articles of Faith). No one need be a Mormon to accept that this is a fair expectation of religious freedom. I can easily live and work alongside those who believe and worship differently than I. We will no doubt find that we have much more in common than we knew.

So, back to the lessons of Nauvoo. Mormons were victimized, persecuted, and driven out in Missouri, then Illinois ostensibly over religious differences. Has that kind of persecution stopped in this country? No, not for religious minorities whose views are seen as incorrect by self-appointed arbiters of social norms, and not for those who are the targets of hate.

Neither those who hate nor those who impose politically correct theology actually believe in religious freedom. Their view is that it should apply to those who see things their way, or those who share their ethnic heritage or skin color. The haters and the politically correct are often in the same camp. In the name of orthodoxy or racial and ethnic purity, they are willing to forego tolerance. They let themselves believe that people who do not share their philosophy or their heritage don’t deserve or can’t be trusted to handle freedom of choice.

It’s time for those who truly cherish religious freedom to say, “Enough.”

It is long past time for those who say—with fingers crossed—that America stands for religious freedom to act like they really mean it.

It is time for religious freedom without qualifications—without this mental reservation: “if they believe and worship as I do.”